Summer means a lot of things. Lemonade stands. Swimming. Riding bikes. But nothing means summer like baseball.
From kids playing Little League to the pros in the major leagues, baseball fields across America come alive. Of all the places to watch and play baseball in summer, the collegiate wood bat leagues are among the best. There are several summer leagues across the country in which college players test their skills using wood bats, and the Northwoods League (NWL), which spans the upper Midwest, is the home run of them all.
Teams in the NWL play 72 games in 78 days, and that means fans can catch a game almost daily at a stadium such as Kapco Park, where the Lakeshore Chinooks play in Mequon, Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Michigan. The NWL was created in 1994 and has become known for many things, including playing the most number of games each summer and drawing the highest fan attendance.
“The NWL is the best internship a college student athlete can have to prepare for MLB,” says Chinooks manager Eddy Morgan. “It teaches you the physical aspect of the game but also the mental aspect of playing almost daily.”
As players come from colleges all over the country, they also meet new people, form team chemistry, and learn from experienced coaches while playing with wood bats. The only other league or level of baseball using wood bats is MLB, making summer leagues a new challenge for even these experienced athletes. “It’s tougher playing with a wood bat because of the smaller sweet spot,” says Owen Miller, shortstop for Illinois State University and the Chinooks.
“Swinging a wood bat makes you realize you need to hit the ball a little bit better because with a metal bat you can get away with some things,” says Joe Duncan, outfielder for Eastern Illinois University and Miller’s teammate in Mequon.
As a fan attending an NWL game, you can expect to see…well, a lot of fans and great baseball! The Chinooks club and NWL provide “affordable family fun to our communities,” according to NWL President Gary Hoover. “It is much easier to bring the entire family and get so close to the action on the field, watching high caliber college players in a beautiful ballpark.”
Players walk right past fans on their way to and from the dugouts, and fans can stand just feet from pitchers and catchers warming up in the bullpen. After the game, players happily sign autographs and talk to fans of all ages.
For most players, the wood bat leagues are a unique summer camp type of experience. Since most players are from other parts of the country, they live with an area host family for the summer. “It’s a very cool thing because they become extended family members,” says Morgan, who lived with a host family himself in his first years of coaching the Chinooks. “Now they are an extension of my family.”
Marshall Kasowski, a pitcher for the University of Houston, has returned to the Chinooks club for a second summer. “I had a lot of fun last summer and wanted to come back again,” says Kasowski. “It feels a lot like professional baseball, from the schedule and level of competition to Kapco and the coaching staff.”
In between practices and games, the Chinooks players explore the Milwaukee area by attending Brewers games, fishing area lakes, and listening to music at Summerfest. Their first choice of activity remains clear: playing ball. “My favorite thing is playing baseball. If I could, I would never stop playing,” says Alec Olund, an outfielder and utility player for Purdue University and the Chinooks. “This is the best way to spend summer, playing ball with a great group of guys.”
Fans seem to agree. Mike Cho attends many games with his family members, who are all are huge baseball fans. “I like that the NWL plays games every day, so there is always good baseball to watch,” says Cho. “I like the wood bats; the crack of a wood bat is like nothing else. It’s summer for us.”
Watching the Chinooks play in the NWL, fans get to watch athletes with major league skills having Little League fun. With woods behind leftfield and Lake Michigan just past rightfield, fans find their seats and kids play catch near the bullpen. The home team Chinooks fell short on a recent summer day, losing 1–0 to the Wisconsin Woodchucks, but nobody seemed in a rush to leave.
It is summer, after all.
Photographs courtesy of the Lakeshore Chinooks